|Nathan Brinker returned at defensive end this past week after a couple of games resting an injury.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com
By Joe Sager
On an annual basis, the coaches in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference believe their teams can match up with the nation’s best.
That’s been the case this year. Like the Centennial Conference on the other side of the bracket, the MIAC has two representatives in the quarterfinals in St. John’s (12-0) and Bethel (11-1).
“It’s a crime we only got two teams in the playoffs because St. Thomas has had some great teams the past few years and this year is no exception,” said St. John’s coach Gary Fasching, who helped guide the Johnnies to their 33rd conference title this fall. “Steve Johnson does an incredible job at Bethel. They have a really nice football team that’s playing really, really well. They might be the hottest team right now. It’s a credit to our league. We certainly think we stack up against most other conferences in the country.”
The third-ranked Johnnies are on a pretty hot streak of their own. They’ve outscored their first two playoff opponents (Martin Luther and Whitworth), 129-30. They face a challenge against at second-ranked Mary Hardin-Baylor (12-0) on Saturday.
“I think our league is very good, but I don’t know that I’ve seen a team more athletic and faster than Mary Hardin-Baylor,” Fasching said. “They look just so much quicker than everybody they play and they are so athletic. Two years ago, they won the Stagg Bowl and, last year, finished second. We know we’re facing one of the top teams in the country. At this time of year, with eight teams left, you’ll get those matchups, though. We’ll prepare accordingly and, hopefully, go down and give them a great test.”
At 60.4 points per game, Mary Hardin-Baylor has the country’s top scoring offense. St. John’s, which ranks third at 49.9 points per game, knows its defense must step up Saturday. The unit is ranked ninth overall at 10.3 points allowed per game.
The defense got a boost with the return of senior defensive lineman Nathan Brinker, who missed two games with an injury. In last week’s win over Whitworth, he had five tackles. However, his impact is felt more than in just the stat department.
“He has been kind of banged up all year. He is an incredible defensive lineman. He was the lineman of the year in our league. No one plays harder than him. Having him back is great. He was out a couple weeks with a hip injury, but he provided a spark on the defensive front for us,” Fasching said. “He gets an incredible about of pressure on the quarterback. I have coached here for 26 years now. When I was an assistant coaching the defensive line, I coached a lot of All-Americans. I don’t know that I have seen someone as disruptive as he is. He plays hard and with such a high motor it is contagious to the defense, too.”
Brinker was thrilled to get back on the field.
“It was very painful just watching. I wanted to be in there with the guys. I hadn’t missed a game in four years, so being on the sidelines really hurt,” he said. “Overall, I thought that was best for the team. Looking toward the future, we had bigger fish to fry. I wanted to be fully healthy for that time.”
Another key for the Johnnies’ defense is Max Jackson. The senior safety directs the defense. He leads the team with 75 tackles as well.
“He has been a four-year starter back there for us. Not only does he play great defense, but he is the leader of our defense out there. He makes most of the calls out there and gets guys in the right spots,” Fasching said. “It’s not often that our safety is our lead tackler. That’s not usually a good sign. But, he is around the ball so much and he comes up from the safety spot for us. He ends up playing like another linebacker out there.”
Jackson has an impact on special teams, too. He returns punts and kicks for St. John’s. His 47-yard punt return led to a touchdown last week as the team pulled away for 21 straight points.
“He probably had the play of the day. He turned the momentum with that great return right before halftime that allowed us to get a touchdown,” Fasching said. “He might be the best athlete in the conference. He is a great baseball player, too (D3baseball.com All-Midwest Region). He is as good as they come.”
Likewise, Bethel hopes to rely on its defense at UW-Whitewater (11-0).
“I think they are pretty good all over the place. They are not ultra-fancy, but they are solid everywhere. They are powerful and big,” Bethel coach Steve Johnson said. “It’s not like we don’t care about what other teams are doing, but we’re trying to work on us and be as good as we can. We have to take care of our business and be the best we can be. These guys have lived that out a little bit and we’re staying healthy. They love to play and be with each other. It makes it more fun.”
The Royals’ defense allows 13.6 points per game and was able to stop North Central on its final drive in last week’s 27-24 victory. Like St. John’s, Bethel has its own force at defensive end in Kyle Kilgore. The senior led the MIAC in sacks and has 13 on the season.
“Kyle is unbelievable; he’s just ridiculous. He is a hard worker,” Johnson said. “Sometimes, we get overshadowed by the Tommies and Johnnies and we’re fine with that. But, Kyle has quietly been a force in the league. Everybody in our league knows about him. When a guy is real good, he makes everyone else a little better.
“Teams have to know where he is on the field. Just his presence might open up space for a linebacker or another lineman. Over the course of the game, it makes a heck of a difference.”
|Kyle Kilgore smothers Wartburg quarterback Matt Sacia.
Photo by Scott Pierson, d3photography.com
Kilgore had 10 solo tackles, including three for a loss, and forced a fumble in the victory over North Central. Getting into the backfield is his top priority, but he knows it’s not just about what he does on a given play.
“Pressure breaks pipes – when we are getting after quarterbacks, they start making mistakes and turnovers happen, which is a huge momentum booster,” he said. “Anytime we can get in the face of the quarterback, it’s a good thing for us. I enjoy the fact that what I do up front impacts how my teammates are able to play behind me. The secondary has been playing amazing all year, making quarterbacks hold onto the ball longer than they maybe should, which makes my job easier. In return, when we are able to cause pressure, it makes the secondary’s jobs easier. That is the best part of it – it takes all 11 guys.”
As tough as he is against opponents, Kilgore is kinder off the field. He was named to the Allstate Insurance AFCA Good Works Team, which recognizes college football players from all levels for their contributions in their communities, for his many hours volunteering, going on mission trips and running sports clinics for special-needs children – something he has done for many years. St. John’s quarterback Jackson Erdmann was named to the team as well. All players selected will be invited to New Orleans to participate in a special community service project ahead of the 2019 Allstate Sugar Bowl, where the entire team will also be recognized on the field during a halftime presentation.
“It is really cool to be celebrated for that work, but it is never the reason you do it,” Kilgore said. “I am excited to be able to share the time in New Orleans with my father, who has really shaped me into the man I am today. Bethel has had, I think, 12 players win this award and that is a testament to our program here. I really feel like a number of guys on our team would be deserving of it. It is exciting stuff!”
Kilgore’s not ready to think too much about the Sugar Bowl yet. He has his eyes on getting to the Stagg Bowl first.
“The key for us to win is for each of us to do the job required of us,” he said. “We will need to continue to practice at a high level and play physical.”